Paper Martyr

There was a great to-do a year ago when ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick lost his job because he was writing a book about Al Gore. “[Y]ou have a constitutional right to say whatever you like, but you don’t have a constitutional right to be an ABC News correspondent,” ABC News president David Westin told Zelnick in an e-mail, according to the Washington Post. On the face of it, that did seem unfair. Since when were reporters not allowed to write books about the people they covered? Although ABC News never came right out and said so, Zelnick’s real offense seemed to be that he was writing his book for Regnery, the conservative publishing house. In an appearance on CNBC’s Equal Time, Zelnick said his ABC masters had asked him whether he was writing a “traditional, straightforward biography” or a “point-of-view-oriented critique.” Zelnick said he’d told them, “As far as I know at this point in time, my intention is to do a traditional biography.”

Zelnick’s book, Gore: A Political Life, is due out in May, and guess what? ABC’s worst fears that the book would be marketed as a hysterical anti-Gore screed have been realized! “Meet the ‘Big Brother’ of Environmental Socialism–Your Next President?” screams a direct mailing from Human Events magazine, which is offering the Zelnick book as a free bonus to new subscribers. (Human Events and Regnery are both owned by the conservative publisher Thomas L. Phillips.) “He flip-flops on the issues,” the brochure continues. “He wants everything both ways. He lies about his record. But this isn’t Bill Clinton–it’s his hand-picked successor Albert Arnold Gore, Jr.!” Bright-blue letters on the envelope screech, “ABC News Fired Me for Writing This Book.”

Chatterbox hasn’t read the book itself, but a leisurely skim of the prepublication galleys makes plain that it’s an unrelenting attack on Gore’s character–nothing like the “straightforward biography” Zelnick told ABC he planned to write, and several degrees beyond the “point-of-view-oriented critique” that he denied he was writing. Gore is called “the pious moralist from Tennessee.” He is chided for seeking “to criticize and embarrass his own country’s government” at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on the environment. He is said to have won his famous NAFTA debate with Ross Perot by serving up “anecdotal nonsense, a list of treaty endorsements, and some rather nasty ad hominem attacks on Perot.” Even Gore’s loyalty to Bill Clinton (which Zelnick plainly deplores) is criticized as “tepid.” Zelnick writes, “Not during Whitewater, or the campaign fund-raising scandals, or the myriad ‘bimbo eruptions’–including the Monica Lewinsky affair–did Gore once say, ‘I know Bill Clinton. I know Bill Clinton’s character. And the Bill Clinton I know would not do that.’ “

In sum, Zelnick has written precisely the anti-Gore screed that ABC feared he would, rendering entirely legitimate their apparent worry that Zelnick’s extracurricular activities would undermine confidence in their news organization’s fair-mindedness. His bosses were right to forbid him to write it, and Zelnick was dishonest to pretend he was writing anything other than a hatchet job.

–Timothy Noah